Blind Obedience: Experiencing the Shadow in a Spiritual Community
“If one does not stand in the darkness, he will not be able to see the light.”--Dialogue of the Savior, Nag Hammadi text
When I was a young adult, I joined a commune. Our philosophy was based on a mixture of imitating the lifestyle of the first century disciples of Jesus Christ and liberation from structures and institutions, a liberation that had been fostered by the counterculture of the 60’s.
The practical reasons I joined were that I wanted to create a new family, a place where a Bohemian artist, spiritual seeker, and cultural rebel felt she belonged, a place where a single mom would find comfort and help in raising her child. Another reason the group attracted me was that there was a strong component of taking care of the less fortunate as stipulated in the Gospels: “Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers, you do to me.” We took in the homeless, street winos, Viet Nam vets with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), the mentally ill, travelers and seekers. We provided free meals, showers and laundry, a warm place to sleep, companionship and conversation, and music. Later we visited and corresponded with people who were incarcerated. We believed that when Jesus said Blessed are the poor, he meant those who live in poverty and when he said Give everything away and follow me, he was speaking to each of us personally.
The spiritual reason I joined was that I was completely confused about my spiritual practice.
I had meditated by TM and zazen; read The New Testament, The Autobiography of a Yogi, The Golden Bough and Zen Mind, Beginners Mind; taken LSD and vows of silence; been celibate and promiscuous; gone on retreats at the Green Gulch Zen Center and the Lama Foundation and visited the Sikh ranch; had my astrology chart and my Tarot cards interpreted; was a vegetarian, a peacenik, and a disco queen.
I yearned to make a difference in the world. I believed in justice and harmony but had become disillusioned by every group I had ever been a part of--from my childhood church to my peers--by the shadow side of back-biting, gossip, adultery, greed, anger, power-mongering, and laziness, although I didn’t know then that those traits might be considered the shadow.The commune provided a structure: share everything in common, raise the children collectively, work for God not mammon, “take last place” and be of service.
It worked and we thrived. Miracles of loaves and fishes happened. In Oregon we took in and fed 200 people a night. In Missoula, we had a home for hobos who rode the rails, a cottage that was lovingly decorated and home cooked meals. In Seattle, we gave away hot chocolate and soup to run away teens, many of whom were prostitutes, and visited them in juvenile detention.
When one man began to have more and more control and power, it happened so naturally that it is only in hindsight that I can see how gradually he dominated us. He spoke and acted with confidence and authority. He was charming, brilliant, and more mature than most of us. He extended himself to make me feel special, greeting me with warm hugs and appreciation for my presence, then took charge of the frayed edges of my life by enlisting help with my difficult toddler, making sure I was not neglected but befriended and addressing the envy that had pushed me away so many times before. Little did I realize that it was a way of bringing me closer into the circle so he could dominate my life, tell me where to go, who to sleep with, and even what to wear.
His tactic was one that is common with cults: approval, then disapproval, acceptance, then disdain, so that one never knew if you were in or out of favor. He would tell us we needed to change from being spoiled middle class brats to an awareness of others (and he was right), from being self-centered to being of service (he was right), from being lazy, shy, depressed and unimaginative to being creative and bold, salty and strong (he was right). It was just that we were told to live by his interpretations of the Gospels and his assessment of how we measured up to Jesus, and that was wrong. A mantra was, “If you can’t do it perfectly, don’t do it at all.” And how could anyone measure up to that? We were told we had to leave our personalities behind. It was more important to serve the right gravy than to compose a poem; it was more important to put the dishes in the sink correctly than to play with the children.
And, of course, the sexual shadow eventually ruined us and destroyed even good memories.
The anguish of betrayal and the pain of disillusionment were deepened by the knowledge that we had betrayed ourselves. As time went on, since we had not recognized our own shadows, they crept into our relationships. It almost seemed as though we had permission from the example set by our mentor. We, too, individually, power-tripped others, mistreated and judged people in the group and outsiders, benefited from tattling and from blind obedience, lied in order to get what we needed, sexually harassed the young women, mistreated and bullied the children, stole from others by opening their mail and using the checks we found for what we thought was important, coerced others to cooperate in situations that were uncomfortable. Also, most of all, we had given over our power to another instead of following our own inner guidance. We had neglected our souls in an effort to become spiritually perfect. We ignored our better judgment and endangered other people’s lives. We didn’t follow our heart’s calling when it was in contradiction to what we were told or what was different from the group’s expectations. We weren’t honest about our despair or our doubts, nor about our lack of experiencing Divine guidance, nor our addictions. Just as we also were unable to delight in our talents and our successes, always mindful not to be vain.
It would be our own responsibility to deprogram ourselves and to heal, to forgive, to move on to a life that was authentic, and to mend our friendships, some damaged beyond repair.
It took years to unravel the lies I had believed, my conformity to group think, to discover what I truly believed and hoped for. I wandered the dark woods of despair, doubt, grief, and disillusionment in order to come back to myself and my spiritual quest. Fortunately I had never lost my faith in Divine benevolence. Some of us did.
But the experience also gave me a wonderful yard stick to measure what I encounter in comparison to what I know. The naiveté is gone. With years of deep contemplation, meditation, prayer, conversation, therapy, and the creative process, I finally understand I have to carry the shadow myself. I know it is there and I know that I cannot ignore it; I have stood in the darkness and I know what is light—and what does not bring me closer to the Divine within and without. Self-destructive behaviors, pessimism, and giving my power over to someone else have all been a part of my journey until I saw them clearly.
I believe the shadow of a spiritual community must be explored in order to find balance, truth, and authentic practice. The danger lies not in having a shadow—for me the question is not why do spiritual communities have one as I am certain they always will—but in ignoring it. If our commune had truly been traveling towards the Divine, we should have had a dialogue instead of a dictatorship. This is one of the most dangerous tenets of a cult: blind and absolute obedience. We must be able to question every aspect of our lives, including the Scriptures and even God Himself. We must explore a crisis of faith, not scoff at it; and even as we examine our personality flaws in order to leave them behind, we must rejoice in our soul’s beauty, the desire for creativity that explores things that are uncomfortable, the aspects that make us each unique, our quirks and our preferences. A spiritual community has to be able to face the tough questions: What if we are wrong and how do we change? Just as each individual has to ask himself or herself those questions. Most of all, there has to be the motivation to be transformed not by coercion but by self-awareness, self-discipline, the mirroring from others around us, the sieving and scouring and polishing done by the Divine when we step willingly on the spiritual path if we just allow it, the heartbreaking beauty, joy, and grief that life will bring our way and our growing spiritual maturity in responding.
When I first heard the above mentioned quote from the Dialogue of the Savior, it resonated for me but I didn’t really understand it. I believe I do now. I believe in turning over the tapestry of my life to see the knots and rough edges, the intricate work of dark spaces that emphasize the contours and shapes, I have a better understanding of the nature of the Divine. Loving the mess that is necessary to the perfection of the whole is my gift of going through the terrible grief of having my illusions shattered and my heart broken so I could begin again.
My memoir of ten years of communal living called Flowers in the Wind seeks a publisher.